Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The Polytechnic Education Saga!

Over the last few days I have been travelling extensively to a lot of Polytechnic colleges across the country. I have been trying to introduce a radically different career opportunity for the Diploma Holders who wish to join the Indian IT industry. These visits are an eye-opener for me as many of my long-held beliefs about the state of Polytechnic education have been changed. This series of notes that I am posting here are entirely based on my true experiences. I have tried to raise a few questions and I do hope we see answers to these in years to come.

Part 1: The motivators

I have visited nearly 35 polytechnics in Tamil Nadu last week, a few of them are Government run and many of them private / self-financing. I had the opportunity to interact with several categories of people including the Principals, Head of the Departments, Placement Officers and students themselves. While it is heartening to see so many polytechnic colleges across the state, the reality that exists within takes different hues.

One of the fundamental questions for which I was looking for an answer was - "Why do students join Polytechnic colleges?". As an outsider, I have always thought that Polytechnics provide a lot of hands-on training to students thereby preparing them for a strong technical career in the engineering sector. They also take a student to the employment market much faster then any other course. I also believed that students who do their Polytechnic Diploma perform better when they join the undergraduate degree in engineering due to their increased exposure to practical training. Hence, my curiosity was to understand if these are the true motivators for students while they are enrolling in Polytechnic colleges.

Unfortunately, the motivation behind enrolling in Polytechnic colleges are nowhere near my beliefs. Broadly, there are two categories of students - the haves and the have-nots. The 'haves' come from middle or higher income families while the 'have-nots' come from lower middle, lower income or sometimes even from BPL families. The motivators for each of these categories are different.

For the 'haves', Polytechnics serve as an easier and cost-effective route to Engineering colleges while also addressing the issue of low scores in their 10th standard.
A Polytechnic is an easier way to join an Engineering College: A lot of students who do not want to be in the rat race for an engineering college seat after their 12th standard, opt for the Polytechnic route. The pressures are lesser since the competition is also much lesser. The possibility of lateral entry into 2nd year engineering is much higher since most private colleges admit based on the amount of donation one can give. The donations to be given to engineering colleges is much lower at the lateral entry level when compared to first year engineering seat admissions. Plus they save a year's engineering college fees which is sometimes 10 times as much as a Polytechnic College's fees. 
Lower score in 10th standard: Students who score less than 50% in their 10th standard do not usually get science stream in their 11th & 12th. Without science in 11th & 12th, they cannot apply for an engineering seat. Polytechnics are the next best option since admission to most private Polytechnics is not based on merit but largely based on the ability to pay a higher fees and donation.
For the 'have-nots', the need for quicker employability and inability to afford higher education are the key reasons to join a Polytechnic.
The need to start earning: A lot of students in this category come from needy families and there is tremendous pressure on them to start earning. Hence, they cannot afford to wait for 5 to 6 years (to complete a graduation) to become employable. Polytechnics make them employable in 3 years and hence are best suited for this category of students.
Low affordability of higher education (BE / B.Tech): An Engineering education is an expensive proposition. For those who cannot afford an Engineering education, Polytechnic is the next best option to prepare them for an employment.
While the original objectives of setting up Polytechnics would have been to prepare a skilled workforce for Indian industries, sadly only a handful of students join Polytechnic with an objective of learning those skills.

The reality: 
Unfortunately, Polytechnics in India are chosen by students out of compulsion, not out of passion; and this reflects on the poor quality of output from Polytechnic colleges. Until a Polytechnic course becomes a study of choice, it is left to the industry to train them and employ them.

Coming up next: Part 2 - The class differentiators within Polytechnics